Fred and Ron Beaton--the brothers who own and operate KIEV talk radio station--want to do the right thing.
Problem is, when guests on their latest talk show, called "Intimate Matters," speak explicitly on such topics as how piercing the genitals with rings can enhance sexual pleasure, the Beaton brothers don't know exactly what the right thing is.
For the Glendale station whose listening audience is accustomed to a usual fare of cooking, politics and religion, "Intimate Matters," which explores alternative lifestyles, has presented the Beatons with troubling questions about the limits of propriety.
They want to continue airing the show, because they consider it informative. But their dilemma is how to be informative without being offensive.
The Beatons never expected to find themselves walking such a tightrope six months ago when they agreed to let Leanna Wolfe--a Cal State Dominguez Hills professor who has a master's degree in anthropology from New York's New School for Social Research--buy an hourlong time slot on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. to produce a weekly show on "lifestyles and relationships between men and women."
Their problem started in mid-October with Wolfe's episode about body piercing. It caused such an outcry from the station's primarily over-40 audience that the Beatons and their program manager Dick St. Clair threatened to take the show off the air.
After a conference with Wolfe, however, they decided to impose a bleeping policy to censor offensive words and phrases. They also surrounded the program with numerous disclaimers, stating that the station does not advocate the sexual practices described on the show.
Even that has not produced a clear-cut solution. The Beatons, having no experience with bleeping delicate discussions of sex, are making decisions about what to bleep.
About a month ago, the engineer responsible for the bleeping censored a pornographers' comment that ejaculation outside the body reduces the risk of AIDS. Wolfe protested.
The Beatons considered her complaint and decided the comment should have been aired. They modified the bleeping policy to make it less stringent.
Since then, the episodes have gone relatively smoothly. A recent show about men who dress as women was bleep-free despite Wolfe's direct questions about her guests' sex lives.
However, Wolfe was upset that the station would not allow her to air a commercial for a homosexual escort service on that episode. Disagreements persist over proposed commercials for erotic products whose makers had bought air time from Wolfe, who is her own producer.
All the while, the Beatons--both practicing Catholics in their mid-50s--continue to ask themselves whether the radio station their father bought in 1961 is really the right forum for discussions of such matters as open marriage, dominance and submission, phone sex and swinging in the '90s.
On one hand, Fred Beaton said, "we live in a society that has many lifestyles. Why not talk about them? Let people know they exist."
On the other hand, the Beatons consider KIEV--which broadcasts from Santa Barbara to San Diego at 870 on the AM dial--a family radio station.
They have no desire to turn off listeners of their more strait-laced programs, which include CNN news, religious programming and one hosted by conservative political commentator George Putnam.
"The same people that are listening in the morning are still listening in the evening," Fred Beaton noted, although he could not provide specific figures on the number of listeners for any particular show.
When they agreed to let Wolfe produce the show for their station last summer, the Beatons never imagined that she would soon be exploring the "outer limits" of human sexual behavior.
"I don't recall the word sexuality ever coming up," said program manager St. Clair, who oversees the station's regular programming as well as the brokered time slots sold to the public.
Wolfe acknowledged that her show has evolved away from the concept she initially presented to KIEV.
At first, Wolfe said, she thought she would explore issues confronting single adults. Early topics included the barriers to building a good relationship, safe sex, the cost of dating, date rape and whether men and women could be just friends.
But Wolfe, a novice talk show host who hopes to land a job with a larger station someday, said she quickly grew bored.
"I lost interest in being a singles' show. There isn't a lot new to say after a while," she said.
The episode that led Wolfe to change, she said, featured a guest who was part of a group marriage with 13 other people. It "opened the sense up that there were other solutions," she said. "You just didn't have to find this one person and make them into everything."
After thinking it over, Wolfe realized that she wanted to use the show to explore fringe lifestyles, bringing to bear her perspective as a cultural anthropologist.
Wolfe launched phase two of "Intimate Matters" on Oct. 15 with the episode on piercing.
The Beatons, who have both worked at the station since the early 1960s and have run it since their father died in 1985, were horrified by the presentation and received numerous calls and letters of complaint from the station's audience. The Beatons threatened to pull "Intimate Matters" off the air.
After a long talk with Wolfe, the Beatons decided to continue airing the program if she would avoid explicitly describing sex acts in future episodes.
To be on the safe side, the show's engineer was also instructed to bleep out words and phrases that he found offensive, and the station began broadcasting disclaimers before, during and after the show.
Fred Beaton--who considers the station an open forum for public discussion on a range of topics--explained that he decided to continue airing the program because he thinks that "what she is talking about is healthy to be discussed."
"We're not Hollywood or West Hollywood but we're right next door and we should know what goes on there," he said.
Since that decision several weeks ago, the engineer, Craig Caston, the KIEV management and Wolfe have been trying to decide what is allowable and what is not. There are no specific guidelines, and Caston has just a seven-second tape-delay during which to make decisions.
"Our criteria is good taste," Fred Beaton said. "I don't want people to describe how to go about getting multiple orgasms. I don't want to be a sex guide. I just want to explore different lifestyles in the community."
In an episode about dominance and submission, the engineer bleeped a caller's explicit suggestions. Fred Beaton defended the decision.
"What if someone tried that with their wife and then the woman sued us and said, 'You told my husband to do mean things to me,' " he said.
In a subsequent episode, the engineer bleeped a comment from an actor in pornographic films who said he could have an orgasm on cue. Again, Fred Beaton supported that decision.
But in that same episode, Caston bleeped the comment about ejaculation outside the body reducing the risk of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The Beatons later said it should have been allowed because it was AIDS-prevention information. They also told Caston that some physical acts could be described if clinical terms were used--no slang.
Caston has complained about the responsibility of trying to decide what can go out over KIEV's airwaves and what can't, but Fred Beaton said he has taken pains to reassure the engineer that his job is not on the line.
"He was scared to death," Beaton said. "I'd hate to be sitting in his shoes."
Despite the ongoing efforts to handle the topics tastefully, the station continues to receive mail from outraged listeners threatening to tune out KIEV once and for all.
Sometimes, Fred Beaton wonders if all the trouble is worth it.
"The easy way out is to say 'let's not have the program on the air,' " he said.
At the same time, though, he is a bit proud of the show--and of KIEV for airing it. He and St. Clair also admit that they find the show's discussions enlightening, and so, for the time being, the program will stay.
"We are civil libertarians," St. Clair asserted. "If these things exist, why shouldn't the public know. It's a new world out there."